FROM ALAN McELWAIN IN ROME
MORE than 1,500 Indian girls, brought to Europe to become nuns in various convents, are to be questioned in detail about how they got to their present homes and why.
This is the acutely embarrassed Vatican's reaction to allegations that a "trade" involving several thousands of pounds had developed in the recruitment of Indian girls from impoverished families for convents desperately short of nuns in Britain, Italy, France and Germany.
The Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Religious and Sacred Institutes will draw up the questions to be submitted to the girls. Mothers-Superior of convents involved will be instructed to allow the girls to answer them freely and frankly.
The Vatican Press Office, following quickly on last weekend's sensational report by the Sunday Times, denied that there had been any actual trading in Indian novices. but admitted that, since July. the Congregation for the Religious had been investigating allegations of a "trade" in girls.
The newspaper described the business as complex and "potentially disastrous" for the Catholic Church.
The Vatican Press Office spokesman also said that "competent authorities" had ordered the suspension of a system under which for some years, young Indian girls, believing themselves to have a religious vocation but lacking the "necessary means". had asked priests and ecclesiastical organisations fur help.
Throughout this system, the spokesman said, a "certain number" of Indian girls (the Sunday Times estimated 1,500 or more) had been received into various religious institutes, especially in Europe.
As normally happened in these cases. not all the girls proved to have a true vocation. Some therefore returned home. while others had preferred to stay behind as lay women.
In time, "certain disadvantages" had arisen. The "competent authorities" then stepped in.
The Associated Press newsagency has quoted a Vatican official directly involved in the investigation as saying that there was no doubt convents had paid the travelling expenses of Indian girls coming to Europe. but. he said, reports of purchases of girls were "simply fantastic." "I do not think you can accuse anyone of had faith or trickery," the official added. "There were disagreeable incidents — girls who didn't adapt, or who became ill, or had nervous breakdowns. but these things happen. This was no `white slave' trade, and the Vatican wasn't profiting by it," The Vatican Press Office spokesman said that information the Congregation for the Religious had received so far showed that "various statements by the London newspaper did not correspond to the truth and others were unduly exaggerated. In fact, the opposite of what is published has been positively proved."
Reason for inquiry
But the proposal to interview Indian girls in European convents clearly shows that the Vatican believes that there is more than adequate reason for conducting a full-scale inquiry.
The Congregation for the Religious questionnaire will ask the girls whether they entered the convents of their own free will or were in any way coerced; whether their parents were paid any money and how much the girls were given for their fare to Europe; whether they had been happy in Europe and people had been kind or hurtful to them: whether they had ever wanted to go home and. if so, had they been hindered in any way from doing so.
Italian newspapers have published interviews with Indian nuns who have said they are happy in their convents and with what they are required to do. Among allegations made about the "nun-running" is that many of the girls were given only menial work to do.
The secretary of the Congregation for the Religious, Fr. Edward Heston, of the Holy Cross Order, is one of the Roman Curia's ablest and most straightforward senior officials. He got Vatican inquiries under way when the Papal Nuncio in India was instructed to investigate allegations that Fr. Cyriac Pufficnpura, who runs a secular institute in Kerala, and other Indian priests. had been supplying Indian girls to European convents for from £250 to £300 each.
The Sunday Times has alleged the girls were flown to Europe on student-rate tickets costing about £100 each. It has asked what Fr. Puthenpura did with the other £150 each girl had cost. "The nuns assumed that he gave much of it to the girls' families," the newspaper said. "This. we have discovered, is incorrect. The parents also reimbursed Puthenpura."
Report for U.N.
The matter involves, besides the Congregation for the Religious, the Congregation for the Oriental Churches (the main Catholic body in Kerala belongs to the Syrian rite) and the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples which controls the Church's missionary activities.
Italian newspapers are prominently canvassing a report that the "scandal of the traflie in nuns" will be referred to the. United Nations.
The Vatican has rarely been thrown into such a flurry as it is now showing over the alleged nun-running. Pope Paul is reported by one source to have "nearly gone through the roof in horror and rage" when the matter was reported to him.
He is to approve the Congregation of the Religious questionnaire and a report will be made to him after the answers have been studied.